My mom used to tell me to work smart, not hard. (She used to tell me a lot of things, if you haven't heard it from me yet: stay off your knees or else they'll turn black; boys don't like girls with short hair; you don't think, you're such a bright girl, but you don't think... I could go on, but that isn't the point of this post.) This didn't make a lot of sense to me, because I thought that I might not be very smart. I didn't think on my feet, I wasn't witty and clever with words, so I didn't always have the bright, brilliant ideas that she thought her daughter should have. She also told me I was special. Only years after moving away from her have I learned that I'm not special, I'm ordinary. I consider the people around me, gifted, convicted, well-intentioned artists and professionals who are moving mountains to make their professional and artistic dreams come true.
I don't think I'm one of these people. I like to think of myself not as a hanger-on, relative to these people, but more as someone who's orbiting or floating beside them, doing my own thing. Finally. I spent a lot of energy berating myself for not being better, more able, more worthy, not being super(wo)man.
I have to tell you, I'm delighted by the idea of being ordinary. It feels like such a relief. I don't have to be so attached to my work, because I'm learning to detach from it. I can just be a regular person, and do my best to make my life successful--that is, full of health and joy and challenge and growth--and I don't have to walk around with the burden of being exceptional.
I'm currently teaching a group of young people whose world spends its energy telling them they are special. There are a lot of pedagogical and developmental realities they live with that I find difficult. I want to take each of them by the shoulders and say, "Kid, it is a wonderful thing to be ordinary. Have ambition, want to succeed. But cultivate some compassion for yourself right now, because when you fail, you will need it. It is okay not to be the best at something. I promise you. The likelihood that you'll be happier because you went to that ivy-league school or because you managed those eight extra-curriculars is really low."
But I have to temper that instinct with what I'm there to do, which is provide them the opportunity to earn advanced credit for their study, and teach them how to write. So each day, I try to challenge them; I try to provide them with skills and opportunities that will help them grow, perhaps even beyond their young years dictate. But I also want to show them that the rabid ambition they live with is only one way to live, and it may not even be the best way. They can be beautiful and special and lovely, and also be ordinary. I am, and I feel much better this way.